I’m on the phone with Henri, his Gallic voice strangled with emotion, and his news strikes me like ice water on naked flesh.
“It’s Grant,” Henri says to me. “He’s slipping in and out. The doctors can’t be sure about anything. Godammit, Herb, I can barely get a straight answer out of them.”
He keeps talking like this, dispensing theories and analyses, perambulations of speech meant more for him than for me. Henri is just doing what so many do, dealing with the specter of death in his own way, and his way is talking. I don’t mind though. I haven’t really been listening since I answered the phone and heard Henri telling me that Grant Peterson, his lover for the past fifteen years, my first love, is at death’s door.
I hear Henri as if from a distance, like his voice is a scream’s last echo. I mostly hear the tap dancing sound of the rain pirouetting in a kind of dark whimsy, its footsteps resounding throughout my cavernous flat in Union Square, which seems ancient and empty in its loneliness. I observe the artwork that adorns my apartment—paintings and sculptures I bought but never understood. Now I am their only witness, like the last living acolyte in an undiscovered Egyptian tomb.
Henri repeats the things he’s heard from doctors and nurses, things like “we’ll know more when the blood work gets back” and “there’s no way we can be sure until we’ve narrowed down all the possibilities.” Clinicians words these, calculated words. I’ve heard them many times before, words crafted for their precise ambiguity.
“Herb, can you hear me? Herb?”
I’m coming back now, back to reality.
“Yes, Henri. I’m here.”
“Well,” stammers Henri, and I can almost see him thrusting his hand through his hair as he speaks, “if you want to see him again, Herb, you shouldn’t wait. That’s what they’re saying. Some others I’ve spoken to will be coming by soon. We’re hoping to time it right for when he’s awake. Mornings have been best.”
I hesitate slightly, thinking of all the times I’ve been offered such an invitation, all the times I made some excuse to avoid seeing another friend wasting away into nothing. Every older gay man in New York knows this feeling, and I, at sixty-two, remember the worst of phone calls like this.
“Yes,” I hear myself say.
“Of course,” I say, collecting my thoughts. “I’ll be in as soon as I can, perhaps not right tomorrow but Thursday if possible. I’ll have to check flights. Summer usually isn’t bad to get to Toronto.”
I hear Henri’s muffled speech in the hospital. No doubt he has pressed his cell phone against his shirt for the sake of propriety. I wait.
“Herb, that’s wonderful. I know you and Grant haven’t seen much of each other the past few years, but he talked about you all the time, always spoke with such fondness for you.”
I notice the change in tenses but make no comment.
“That’s good, Henri. That is very good to know.”
“Have you thought of where you’ll stay?” Henri asks. “I’m sure you’ll be fine. There are plenty who can put you up. I would offer myself, but—”
“Yes,” I say. “But mentioning that, I should be off—so much to plan for and pack for.”
Henri has muffled his phone again. I wait.
“Of course, Herb. It will be good to see all of us, I think,” he adds, tentatively, as if wondering if it’s an appropriate thing to say, “all things considered.”
“Sure,” I say.
Henri is crying again. I think of crying too but don’t.
I arrive in Toronto the next day. I take a cab into the city, noticing that here, like on all things, time has done its work. I see the neighborhoods that were once slums have been gentrified. Yongue Street, once the pillar of vice and impropriety, a playground for Sodomites, has been warped and twisted, transformed by Coke and Pepsi, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Taco Bell. It reminds me of Times Square. But that’s the way of things—the heroic rise of civilization.
Toronto was a very different place when Grant whisked me here, away from the gloomy town I called home. I’ll forever owe Grant and Toronto an enormous debt for that. In Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up, it was hopeless to be queer. Until the age of twenty-one, that was all I had, the despair of my plight, to have desire without possibility, my body and mind in thrall to invisible forces. Sometimes, under the courageous influence of whiskey or wine, I would travel to the town’s only gay bar, Larry’s. I can scarcely remember seeing more than twenty men in there at once. They always had fugitive looks about them, suspicious eyes that raked the bar and each other, massaging the finger they’d freed of their wedding bands, somehow tumescent in their terror. No one would enter through the front door. Speech within was subdued. Larry’s allowed my first clumsy forays into sex, surreptitious affairs usually resigned to the backseats of cars and hurried, embarrassed acts of fellatio. It was an unhappy time.
That all changed when Grant—with three friends down from Toronto, a vague spot of geography to me then—charged into Larry’s one night in October of 1970, riotous and cheerful as a group of post-victory athletes, and began buying drinks for the entire bar and singing show tunes. Grant spied me nursing a drink and made his way toward me, smiling the whole time. Never before or since have I been so struck with a look, so engulfed by the sight of another that, for a moment, I forgot to breathe. I think I fell in love right then.
Grant was a radical, speaking at length of politics and revolution. His words, to me, contained the sweetness of fine candy, words that worked magic passion on my young mind. We ended the night in a clasp of lips that seemed an hour in length. He left for Toronto, promising to write and return. For days my heart convulsed in wild acrobatics with every thought of Grant. I privately relived that first night a thousand times, sometimes during conversation with my family over dinner, other times while I taught my high school course on democracy, allowing Grant’s words of revolution to slip into my lectures, lectures that then became powerful orations which shocked and intrigued my students.
Grant did come back, and he took me to Toronto, where he was putting together a gay rights magazine called Brave Queer World, which would later become a hit periodical. I made limited explanation to my parents—my father a stone mason, my mother a housewife and piano teacher—who, in their aloof ways, allowed themselves to be politely puzzled by their son’s disappearance with a young man to another country.
Today Toronto drinks in sunlight, and my nostrils taste the clean, chilled air swept in from Lake Ontario. It seems impossible to think of death. I arrive on the doorstep of Al Cynthe’s place off Queen St. in Brockton Village. Al is an old friend from the seventies. He wasn’t much of an activist, him not being terribly social. Al was, and remains, an eccentric: an oddball who consistently maintains, against all established medical opinion but with an extraordinary knowledge of archaic medicine, that HIV is a mutation of syphilis rather than a new epidemic.
“Why if it isn’t Herbert Roth,” Al says, greeting me in his grand way and approaching for a hug.
I direct myself into his path for fear he might miss me. We embrace.
“How is old honest Al?” I ask.
“Surviving one winter at a time,” he says. “And how is Handsome Herb, best-looking guy in New York?”
Despite my age, I blush at this, modesty still being an affectation of mine.
“Old and feeble, losing my charm and looks with every day.”
“Not you,” says Al, leading me to his car. “I suppose we should get going right away then. I’ll set your things inside and we can be off to St. James.”
Al spends the drive trying to distract me with a lengthy monologue about the history of his automobile, its fuel economy and performance in various climates. I appreciate this tactic, but it is of little use. I dread hospitals. My visits to them have always been brief affairs, with a ready-made excuse to leave just as soon as I can. It’s the feel of the place, the mood: the lingering scent of bleach, the fluorescent lighting, the paper gowns patients are made to wear. An audition chamber for death.
Al and I enter the hospital and proceed to the third floor. We navigate the hallways and approach Grant’s room. I try to compose myself.
Henri is here, standing outside the room looking weary and biting his fist as he scrolls through his cell phone, oblivious to the goings-on of the ward around him. He’s wearing something predictably outrageous, a shirt adorned with a tiger set against a yellow background whose brightness rivals a halogen bulb. Henri is modestly handsome, though: very neat and trim, a runner, and quick with a smile and his signature high laugh. Still, I always told Grant—in whispers after a few drinks—that he could do better.
“Henri,” I say, quietly because this seems appropriate.
“Oh, Herb—thank goodness,” Henri says, in his characteristic melodrama, and throws his arms around my body. I’m taken aback a bit—I’ve never been much at comforting—but I recover and allow Henri his hug. When we break I see that my presence has reduced Henri to sniffles.
“Grant’s awake,” Henri says. “He’s in with a few people now; some of the old gang has been dropping by. Gerry’s in there, Sammy too. Others have been coming and going, but Grant sleeps a lot, so most of the time people just sit around and talk.”
I sneak a look around the door frame. Inside, I can see two figures standing over a hospital bed, Gerald Douglas and Sam Perfidon, both writers and managing editors for Brave Queer World that I once lived and worked with, fighting and writing side-by-side in the revolution.
“It’s been testy in there,” Henri explains. “Even in here, in his condition, Grant won’t let up on poor Sammy about the parade thing. I keep telling Grant to let it go for a bit and save his strength, but as soon as Sammy walked in it was all politics and what-not for Grant.”
“That sounds like Grant,” I say.
Over the past few months, trouble had been brewing in the Toronto queer community regarding the annual Toronto Pride parade, one of the year’s largest and most lavish events. A certain group demanded to protest Israel during the parade, but the commission overseeing Toronto Pride denied the group’s request for a permit. This opened the floodgate of criticism towards the parade commissary. Charges of censorship were hurled, editorials written defaming the Pride Commission and The Other World, the offspring of Brave Queer World, operated within a gay media conglomerate run by Sam Perfidon. Grant, of course, was in the thick of it from the beginning, writing furious bits of calumny against Sam, The Other World, the Pride Commission, and the corporate interests in the revenue and advertising that Pride Toronto produced. Grant had phoned me a couple months back about it giddy as a schoolboy, just like in the seventies, with an injustice to fight and a cause to champion. Who would have ever thought, back then, that it would be each other we’d be fighting in our dreary senescence with talk of rights and revolution?
Listening outside the room, I hear my Grant’s voice ring out in perfect outrage—
“Well,” I say, “perhaps now is as good a time as any.”
I enter the room and Sam and Gerry look up. Grant is the last to notice me, turning his head after he sees that Gerry and Sam have ceased listening to his indignation.
“Herb,” says Gerry, bespeckled and still sporting the same mustache he’s had for three decades.
“Hello all,” I say.
I embrace Sam and Gerry, big hugs from both and kisses on each cheek.
“It’s so good to see you again, Herb,” says Gerry, beaming and stepping back to have a look at me. “And still the handsomest of the lot,” he says, laughing.
“Only to eyes as bad as yours,” I reply.
I turn and look to Sam. He’s held up well, a little pudgy, but then again we’re in our sixties. He’s still got a head of fuzzy hair, now gone white, and he wears pointy, stylish glasses that suit him.
“Sammy you look wonderful. How’s the paper doing?”
“It’s still my mistress,” he says, grinning. “Business is good. We’ve been growing every year, trying to do as much online as possible—you know, like everyone else, everyone in the mainstream, that is.”
“That’s grand,” I say, doing my best to sound enthusiastic.
“Yes, indeed,” Sam says, beaming. “Should come by the new space some time, Herb. We’ve got new offices now, very modern, and we’re preparing a special layout for the anniversary.”
“Anniversary?” I say.
“Come on now, Herb,” says Gerry. “Time doesn’t move any differently in New York. It’s the fortieth anniversary of Brave Queer World at the end of the month, two weeks away.”
“Oh,” I say, nodding now, recalling that summer I came to Toronto in 1971 with Grant, who, two weeks later, took me to the first secret meetings that would spawn Brave Queer World, Toronto’s first and arguably most influential gay magazine, a feat that I consistently forgot belonged on my resumé.
“That’s right,” said Sam. “And Other World will be putting on quite the spectacle, and a special edition to commemorate it. Come by the offices this week, Herb. We must work you in somehow. Who knows, maybe we’ll even throw you on the cover again.”
“Again?” I say, genuinely perplexed.
“My God,” says Gerry. “You really have sailed off into the waters of dotage, haven’t you? You were on the cover of—of—“
“Nineteen-seventy-six, June edition,” I hear Grant murmur, a sound that needles my heart. I haven’t looked over at the bed yet, avoiding it like it contains a light that might blind me.
“Right before he sailed off to New York, actually,” Grant adds.
I feel Sam and Gerry melt away from my sides, leaving me, and the hospital room comes into better focus. With the blinds half drawn, sunlight slips into the room in a wan glow, the pearl-white walls and floors reflecting the illumination. To the left of the room, a few feet from the entrance, Grant lies in his bed. I move closer to him, barely aware of my footsteps propelling me forward as I finally look into his face.
Nothing quite prepares you for this, though I’ve seen it many times: the cruelty of the disease upon living flesh. Grant, once an Adonis himself, looks emaciated and withered as a dried plant. His complexion, always a deep manila, has turned pale, almost translucent in the sweat that bathes his face. I see his arms have lost their vitality, limp as unformed dough, their strength and life expended. I fear going near him to learn how he might smell, for I always cherished pulling him close to me and burying my nose in his black curls. These have remained intact. Yet his body doesn’t belong to the man I knew, a body inching towards expiration.
“You still look good, Herb,” Grant says. “Even now, you still have something of your old self.”
“How…are—Grant?” I feel my throat tighten just to look at him, and I fear my eyes might bubble past my control.
“Come on now, Herb,” says Grant. “You were always such a tough-guy.”
I rush forward, my fear of hospital germs evaporating, and envelop him. Grant holds me closely too and I hear him sigh. I wrap my arms around him, caring, perhaps too little, for his comfort. I smell his hair. It smells the way I remember it: a deep mix of soil and coffee. Grant smells like home.
“Come on now, you lug,” he continues. “How have you been?”
“Me?” I say, almost hysterically. “To hell with me, Grant. Tell me about you.”
“Well, hell,” he says, and within moments Grant launches into politics, into Sammy’s refusal to make a deal about Pride and the censorship thing, about how the community is on a downward spiral and the old ideals are leaving us. I listen to it all and nod, reassuring him that it’s not all doom-and-gloom like he says. He doesn’t mention the disease. To Grant, it’s as though we’re having the conversation in a cafe on Church Street, sipping afternoon tea, enjoying the sunlight, unburying all the old politics and wondering at intervals where we might take supper.
“Honestly, Herb,” Grant says towards the end of a speech, “what might come next once our own community leaders have censored us? Hell the mainstream media and society used to do that, and now it’s the gays that are silencing the gays. Who’d have thought we’d live to see the day?”
“Yes,” I say, doing my best not to sound parental. But it’s nothing doing: Grant senses this.
“Don’t do that, Herb—don’t trivialize things the way you do.”
“Well,” I say, “it’s a pretty sensitive subject, and I can understand Sammy being in a tight spot.”
“No,” says Grant, closing his eyes and shaking his head from side to side. “Sam’s doing what he’s doing for business. He doesn’t want anything to upset the millions Pride makes for those friends of his.”
“Well, they’re gay businesses, aren’t they?”
“Christ, Herb,” Grant says, looking exasperated in a way I haven’t seen him look yet. “I know you stopped being political a while ago, but can’t you hear yourself? Can’t you hear how that goes against everything we believe?”
“Use to,” I say. “People change.” I slide off the corner of Grant’s bed.
“Yes,” he says, looking up and into the lamp above him. “You changed, of course. I never understood why you stopped being political, Herb. You were so damned good at it—the articles you used to write, the speeches you would give at meetings. When you went for New York, we were all happy to see you do well in business. Lord knows we treated your apartment like a private hotel. But, secretly, I always wished you hadn’t.”
My heart rolls at this. I glance and see Henri in the doorway, eavesdropping.
“Well,” I say. “I loved the movement, but I left for me.”
“I know,” Grant says. “I don’t blame you. I guess, for a while, I thought it would be the two of us, taking on the world, changing things, trying to build something. It’s easy to think like that when you’re young.”
“Time has its way with dreams,” I say and kiss him on the forehead, allowing myself a moment’s pause.
“I’ll be back soon,” I say.
“Okay,” says Grant. “And Herb,” he calls as I walk towards the door. “If you talk to Sam, see if you can get him to come around and print something bloody critical for a change.”
Later that evening, back at Al’s, I peruse some old copies of Brave Queer World that Al, perhaps a bit too suggestively, has left out. I thumb through old issues and smirk at the articles, whose topics now appear horribly abstruse. We wrote against the suburbs, the State, corporations, medicine, psychiatry and especially the nuclear family and marriage. Fresh from university with Humanities degrees in hand, our minds aswim with Leftist dogma, we took for our muses Marx and Engels, Trotsky and Che. We even lauded that crackpot Laing and the hack Marcuse, trumpeting any idea that contributed to our Revolution.
Grant was a demon about politics and philosophy, always musing about the root causes of oppression, of how things might get better. Grant nurtured Brave Queer World from the start. From an original few dozen issues of the first edition, the magazine ballooned with a readership in the thousands. We became the gay voice in Toronto, and the community looked to us for leadership. Brave Queer World even made its way to Europe and across the urban gay circles all over the States. It was how we communicated then with no email or cell phones. Brave Queer World wasn’t simply the voice of one or two editors—everyone had a say and a vote on what went into the paper.
When I came to Toronto, I moved in with Grant straightaway. He found me a job teaching English as a Second Language, a task that I was horribly ill-prepared for but enjoyed nonetheless. Grant took his time with me, not wanting to traumatize me with too strong a push towards sex and professions of love. Our relationship progressed slowly, perhaps gracefully in comparison with my future affairs: reading Housman and Auden in a park during the day, dining on North African food in the evening, seeing the latest Truffaut by night. When, at last, we made love, Grant was gentle and loving.
For the next few years Grant and I could hardly be separated. We lived together throughout, often with the company of friends or temporary boarders, who always considered us the model couple. I took odd jobs, taught or worked in retail, while Grant manned the helm at the magazine, eventually bringing on Sammy to help professionalize things. We talked movement politics at all hours, always developing the next strategy or article series. I can scarcely remember Grant being in a bad mood, such was his animation for his work. Even the magazine’s frequent financial worries only exhilarated him further. For Grant, no task was too small, every difficulty a welcome challenge.
Five years into the relationship, when Brave Queer World was at its zenith, two things occurred: at twenty-seven, I began to feel the terror of age, and I found my eye wandering. I had also, for quite some time, found solace in the gym. In exercise, I found meditation, a place of worship, and the workshop where I could craft the essential tool of my life—my body. I took to the bodybuilding life like a zealot, a Spartan, training twenty hours a week and devouring proteins, examining myself in the mirror to see if I resembled the men in magazines.
I also noticed other’s eyes, men and women both, sweep over my body with lust or envy. I felt the thrill of being beautiful when all I had ever felt back home was common, everyday, ordinary.
Grant barely noticed this. How could he have, being so wrapped up with changing the world? By then, late in the relationship, around 1977, I had taken to frequenting Manhattan, occasionally for weeks at a time. Something about the city ignited my spirit. Here was possibility in every form: every lust could find its object, every fantasy its reality and every dream its fruition.
I planned my flight carefully, began putting my finances together and attempting to find the right words to tell Grant. Timing with these matters, I’ve always known, is crucial.
Grant came home late one night from working on the paper, which was the norm rather the exception. He registered only mild surprise to find me waiting for him at our kitchen table.
“Grant,” I said. “Can we speak?”
“Sure, sure,” he said, unloading his valise, which was packed with papers, and walking into the kitchen. Grant made his way towards me, looking worn but happy, expectant at whatever I had to say, perhaps anticipating me to yank him out the door for an impromptu night out.
“I don’t feel happy here anymore,” I said. “I feel like I’m missing something big, something important, and I need to follow it.” I remember sighing, shrugging, wiping my hand over my mouth before, “Grant, I’m moving to New York.”
I noticed then, perhaps for the first time, Grant frown, his eyes drop, and saw him rub his face with both hands and bend over at the waist.
“It’s just—” Grant stammered, “I thought you were happy here, Herb. I thought we were happy, that you enjoyed yourself here, and your work on the paper and your teaching. I just—”
It went on like that for a bit, I reassuring Grant that there was no simple explanation, no cause to boil down to, no great way to explain it, just that I was moving on. He took it well and cried a bit. For the sake of being the put-together one, I didn’t cry, clinching up my eyes when necessary. A few weeks later I was off for a vast and thrilling new life.
I awake early the next morning, in part due to Al’s calling from the kitchen, “Herb, Herb, I’ve got breakfast.” Reluctantly I pull myself from bed, don a robe, and proceed downstairs to quell Al’s calls. Unlike many my age, I’m still a very late sleeper, but Al always rose early, even as a young man, much to the displeasure of his housemates.
“Ecce Homo,” I say to Al, settling into the dining nook of the house’s open and flush kitchen. Located at the back of the old Victorian, the kitchen opens into a screened-in patio that abuts a plush garden that Al and his partner have nurtured into a pastoral wonderland. The Lake Ontario wind whistles through the screen and into the kitchen, filling the place with the smell of sage and rosemary, mint and pepper. For a moment I feel a great calm.
Al places before me a plate arranged with an omelet, toast drizzled with honey, wedges of melon and slices of banana, and a cup of coffee. Like most that possess a mind and hands for craftsmanship, Al is a wonderful cook, and I enjoy my repast as Al settles opposite me.
“Sammy called asking for you,” says Al.
“Oh,” I say. “What of it?”
“He said you should come by the offices downtown today.”
“Oh,” I say again, sipping my coffee. “What do you suppose he wants?”
“He probably just wants to show you around, maybe show off a bit is more like it, and I think he wants to take your picture and get you to say a few charming things about Brave Queer World for the memorial edition coming up.”
I consider this and allow myself a small upsurge of excitement. It’s been a while since I’ve been featured anywhere, on a posting or in a magazine. Aside from the one cover issue of Brave Queer World, I’d been featured in a few advertisements and queer mags in New York. I’d never attempted or cared to be a model, but a few friends in the media business asked me to lend my face and physique to their cause. Flattered, I obliged, but that was a long time ago.
“Okay,” I say.
Al, appearing a bit startled at hearing me speak as he pored over his morning edition of the Toronto Star, looks up at me and asks, “Okay what?”
I arrive on Church Street late that afternoon at the offices of The Other World. The offices reside in a lean, historic building in the gay district of Toronto. The facade is a deep, rusty brick, lending an aura of history to the place, as though it might be some kind of proletariat factory.
I enter the building and ascend the stairs to the second floor office. There’s a foyer, contemporary and official looking, complete with plasma televisions and cushy furniture, abutted by tables groaning with magazines, copies of The Other World and various pornographic issues whose titles I don’t recognize. Left of the room, situated before large glass doors that lead to the main offices, rests a desk with a muscled youth in a bright yellow Other World t-shirt, who sits in complete unawareness of my presence as he blankly negotiates his cell phone and bites his lip. I approach, somewhat awkwardly, and voice my presence.
“Excuse me,” I say.
The boy looks up. He has bleach-blonde hair combed straight up and studs in his ears. He looks like a child to me, a muscled, bewigged toddler.
“Yes,” he says.
“I have an appointment with Sam Perfidon.”
The bemused expression on the youth’s face shows no affection. He lays down his cell phone, gazing at it with a pained expression as though it was an amputated limb. Next, the boy punches a few keys into the office phone and says, “I have a Mister…” He looks up at me here, expectantly.
“I’m Herb,” I say. I’ve always been useless in official-type conversation.
He nods knowingly and continues, “A Mister Herb here to see Mister Perfidon.” He nods again, the receiver moving up-and-down along with his head. “Okay,” he says, and hangs up.
“Mister Sam will be right out to see you,” he says. “Please have a seat.”
No sooner have I done so then Sam comes bouncing through the glass doors with a wide grin on his face, beckoning me inward, saying, “Herb, Herb, come on in,” coaxing me as one does a pet kitten.
“And Tyler,” Sammy says, placing his hand on my back and gingerly patting me like a piece of memorabilia, “we never keep Brave Queer World royalty waiting—Herb was a founding member.”
Tyler’s eyes widen theatrically in reverence, paying his due to the antique visitor, this queer fossil, and he returns to his cell phone, this time biting his tongue.
Sam leads me back through the offices, describing me with similar auspicious introductions to the hurrying writers, web technicians and editors who each express the same mild, polite interest in my involvement with their vaunted antecedent. Next, Sam leads me through a maze of cubicles back to his office in a secluded corner of the place. The aesthetics of the office strike me as decidedly dull: a pale desk centers the room, adorned with a computer, and behind it is Sammy’s chair. A few books occupy the grooved, in-wall shelves behind Sam’s desk, and a rather perfunctory fern languishes in the corner, yearning for the few strips of sunlight available to it. It provides the only hint of color in this chamber of gray.
“Herb,” says Sam, as though seeing me for the first time in this visit, “I’m glad you could stop by.”
“Yes,” I say. “I don’t seem to make it back here much, and people don’t come to New York quite as often as they used to, but it’s good to be back.”
“All a part of age, Herb,” says Sam, adopting an air of wisdom I’d never heard from him when I knew him in our twenties. Back then, Sam was a hard-line Marxist, moving to Toronto after studying history at Cornell eager to get high, get laid and change the world. And now here he is, a Chief Executive Officer.
“You get older and you get wrapped up in business or new people that you don’t care for but have to pay attention to. It’s that spiral downward, you know?” He sighs here, satisfied with this dissection of middle age and its social workings.
“Something like that,” I say. “But seems to be doing well here.”
“We’re booming,” Sam exclaims. “The Other World is just the tip of the iceberg, Herb. We’re online now, and that’s where the future is for everything. We only keep printing paper copies of Other World because old fogies like us still buy them. They’ll be gone in twenty years. Kaput.”
“And to think,” I say, “it all started in a basement in Kensington Market with us begging the lefties at UT to use their printing press.”
Sammy nods and forces a laugh. While Sammy is the reigning CEO of Other World and a healthy chunk of queer media in Toronto, Grant always maintained that Sammy feels ashamed he missed the first rough-and-tumble years of Brave Queer World, that he skipped the war and arrived for the peace treaty.
“Well,” Sammy says, slapping the table as though time is imminent, “let’s get you downstairs and take a few photos of that famous face of yours, you prince of New York, and we’ll have you on your way.”
This occurs, much to my embarrassment, as I spend the next two hours having my body arranged and manipulated by a pair of hissing photographers, who twist and shape my figure into poses as if I was a storeroom mannequin, giving such intermittent advice like, “More natural,” “now be serious,” and simply, “contemplate.” I silently give thanks to the small mercy that allowed me to remain clothed for this bodily parade, my physique not being what it once was.
Afterwards, Sam leads me through the foyer to walk me out. We stop in the entranceway as I make to leave.
“Well,” says Sam, “that’s that. Photos will be fabulous. You have no idea what our guys can do with computers these days. They can take ten years off you like that,” he says, snapping his fingers.
“If I write you a big check can they take off thirty?”
Sam laughs at this, somewhat too loud and forced. I see him raise his foot a bit, as though about to stamp it to add some percussion to his mirth.
“Anything for you, Herb,” Sam says. “Now there’s just one more thing, the editors will have a little bio of you as a headliner, boilerplate stuff—who, what, when, where—that kind of thing, but we’ll need a few reflections from you to add some personality. Let’s say three hundred to five hundred words.”
Sam rummages in his pocket for something and produces a business card.
“You can email it to this guy, one of our associate editors,” he says, handing me the card.
“About what?” I ask, almost too forcefully, putting quite a bit of breath into the what.
“Oh,” says Sam, looking a touch startled by the question himself. “About anything, really. Whatever you like. Most people opt for the ‘way it was when I was a young queen’ and the like. You were big in movement stuff and Brave Queer World at the beginning, Herb. Jog the memory a bit—write what you know.”
Later that night I think about Grant, about my leaving. I arrived in New York early in 1977. The city churned with life, drugs and sex that could be found anywhere. This was before the great cleanup, before Times Square became Disneyland, before porn shops and best clubs folded, a time when you could go out for groceries or a pack of smokes and get laid once on the way there and once on the way back.
I got myself another retail job at a bookstore. The pay was livable, and my only expense was myself. I hit the docks and bars with regularity. At the docks you could walk into a carrier crate, screw, and be on your way. At the bars you could be more discriminating: survey the crop and take your pick of the litter.
I learned, very quickly, the hierarchy of the gay world. In this world, beauty was the only currency, and it was accepted everywhere, in every language, regardless of politics or religion. I saw that beauty made you powerful, made it acceptable to enter rooms thought to be exclusive, clubs whose guest lists did not contain your name, and private parties where you were but a distant acquaintance.
I found men easily. Sometimes, I could go for several weeks sharing my bed with a new person every night. I’d only quit if I was near exhaustion, taking a few days off to recharge myself for the next adventure. At one point, I went with an older man whose business was real estate. We became business associates, and I acquired some properties and became moneyed. I stopped doing anything professional whatsoever, allowing hours at the spa or salon, the cinema or the bookshop, the cafe or strolling in the park to fill my day.
I made friends, perhaps a few hundred, as I became a star in New York, a jewel in the coterie of desirable men. Nights I spent at the clubs. The Anvil. The Peppermint. I was one of the originals at Studio 54, convening with Steve and Ian, bearing witness to Travolta and Donna Summer, even shared a drink with Roy Cohn. Finally, I felt that I had arrived.
The crowd from Toronto visited often. For a while, I was the golden boy of the old circle, the apple of their eyes, the one who had got off to the real big city. Grant came when work would allow. I noticed Grant grew handsomer with time, obviously committing himself to his own fitness regimen. We always slept together when he came to New York. Afterward, I would wrap my arms around him, resting my head on his chest, and listen to him breathe while he stroked my hair in odd circles. We never spoke much of it.
I did, from time-to-time, take a regular lover, a boyfriend. Such instances punctuated my wild lifestyle only occasionally, providing all the depth and sustenance of cheap candy. At such moments I would select a man—always young, and practically at random from my harem at the time—to go steady with for a while: going to dinner and the like, introducing him to friends at parties. Such dalliances never lasted long and always ended poorly, sometimes becoming the seeds for Midtown gossip. After a while I would grow bored with the state of things, find the affair monotonous, reeking of pallid domesticity, and lacking in the excitement that accompanied my evening trips to the bars. Thus, I would end the relationships with some tired, ambiguous excuse (“I’m feeling trapped,” “I think we’re going in different directions”). They were always hurt, these men. They would, on occasion, take the opportunity to stab at my psyche in grand soliloquies describing my various flaws, striking like miners for psychological gold. I offered no rebuttal, always nodding my head and making no argument, which I’d learned was the best way to bring such events to a close, allowing my adversary to create and verify whatever story suited him best and leave.
Things progressed like this, more or less, for many years. Then came the eighties, that chiaroscuro of a decade, a time that my memory inveterately assigns the colors grey and black, its fashion that of funeral suits, veils covering stony faces. All too well I remember how it began. It was at Fire Island, the closest thing to gay paradise, that we first noticed something was wrong. It began with whispers, rumors of unexplained deaths of hale young men, their lives just in bloom. The prettiest ones went first, their beauty betraying them, proving itself a curse, and only later would we understand why.
Soon, bit by bit, our knowledge evolved. It was a sickness born from love, from loving too much, from love gone awry. Quickly, like winter night falling, fear descended on the city. Where we used to appreciate the passing glance, the too-long stare, we now grew wary, frightened of our own desire, of what might be churning through our veins, infecting us, making us creatures of illness.
I lost three out of every four friends I had, slowly, torturously over twenty years. I came to dread the sound of the phone ringing, of the door knocking, of any friend’s voice even, because of the words that might enter my mind and, for the freshest time, lay siege to my very soul.
Yet despite all the warnings, despite Larry telling us to give up sex for good, despite the pure common sense of the matter—I couldn’t stop. I acted as though nothing was afoot, as though no reality lurked in every blowjob, in every screw. For years I carried on, hitting the same clubs, the same bars, picking up strangers without discussion of a condom. I can’t explain myself for it. Even now that behavior shames me. I thought that, perhaps, if I could die, all of it would be so much easier. It would be others who would visit me, burdened with keeping the gallant face for a dying friend. No more pain, no more misery, the burden of health relinquished.
But it never came for me. I remember sitting one night at home in the fall of 1997, getting the call from Grant. By then, such fears had become manageable. Grant made chit-chat, talked politics in his usual way, and then he told me the news. As I recall it, I feel myself nodding along with whatever I must have said at the time, assuring him that things would be “all right” and “okay,” that what was needed was a positive outlook, a strong constitution and the wherewithal to endure. I made a joke or two, I knew he’d like that, something about at least he had a health care system instead of a syndicate. A proper Canadian, he loved to hear an American bash his own. When we hung up, I wrapped myself in blankets and wept.
By then just about everything in my life had changed. I had just celebrated my fiftieth birthday in a sumptuous festival at my flat. And yet, while I routinely heard that I could still pass for thirty-five, I began to observe the menace of advancing age. First I saw it in my friends, many of whom had settled in a committed relationship and sedentary lives, allowing their muscles to soften, their bellies to grow slack. I still kept at my routine, trying my best to keep age at bay. But time gnaws away at you like the tide upon rock. It begins with something minor, a sore shoulder or knee, infirmities that become advanced, keeping you out of the gym for weeks at a time. Wrinkles appear where there were none before. There’s a procedure. A second procedure. But how many more?
These facts come home at last, and no rage can alter it. Rage at the feeling that the best is passed, that the final act of life is about to play, the curtain soon to fall. Friends and family enter hospitals en masse, this time from natural causes. The body’s various ailments anchor conversation, reminders of the mutual journey to the grave. Sex becomes a memory, and though the desire is still present, the act seems now a chore, and former flames give no solace in the here-and-now. People begin to die from simple things, a flu or a short fall. Friends and relatives slip away almost imperceptibly, with only dim memories to prove they were alive at all. “They are not long,” a poet said, “the days of wine and roses.” All that’s left are the noiseless hours and small distractions as the candle burns down—until, at last, you take the final sleep.
Several days pass by unnoticed and without purpose, as imperceptible as the turning earth. Al gets the call early on the second to last Thursday in June, one week before the Pride ceremony, that Grant is barely holding on, not expected to last much longer.
“Herb,” Al says. “It’s time.”
Al and I race to the hospital. The drive is silent, our faces contorted into an image of quiet and determined solemnity. Grant’s room is filled with friends and a few relatives. The volume of the room has been brought low, the occupants communicating in hushed drones of information. Grant is very weak. He has an oxygen mask fitted around his face. His color has faded to parchment, his body has compressed to the size of a child’s doll. People approach Grant, bending down on their knees to whisper a few words, to make our last peace as we’ve been instructed to do. I’ve been in this position before as well, usually resorting to platitudes so cheap I could barely spit them out.
Henri approaches me, rests his hand lightly on my shoulder and pulls my ear to his face.
“Herb,” Henri says, “Grant would like a word with you. People are going to step outside for a few moments, okay?”
I stare at Henri blankly, hoping my face betrays no terror. Henri, who seems uncharacteristically composed, anticipates some action, and I comply with a single nod. I stand and wait as the people file out, some giving me half-smiles of encouragement.
I will my limbs to carry me forward, to sit down at Grant’s side and take his hand in mine. He has removed his oxygen mask and speaks in a quiet, cracked voice.
“I’m at the end, Herb,” Grant says.
“Yes,” I say.
“Herb—are you happy?”
I cry now. Great, effusive tears slide down my face, and my voice erupts in sobs and chortled words. I notice, through his ashen face, Grant’s surprise.
“Don’t cry,” Grant says.
I can’t help myself now. The indifferent plainness of it all rushes upon me: my only love dying, my wasted life, the way he thought to phrase it like he did and how it lacerates me so.
“I’m sorry,” I manage to say, those two horrible words, full of vagueness and elusion. “I’m sorry for leaving. I’m sorry for thinking you weren’t enough. I’m sorry for turning my back on the best thing. I’m sorry for being such a disappointment.”
Grant does his best to console me, and what power he has left he uses to grip my hand. I see tears froth in Grant’s eyes and feel ashamed. I’ve asked a dying man to comfort me.
“You didn’t disappoint me,” Grant says. “I was hurt, but then I realized you were going to New York to be happy. I want you to be happy.
That’s all I ever wanted for you.”
Grant looks away from me now. His eyes move up. I want him now more than ever. His every word has become treasure. I want to ask him how to be happy, why it has evaded me for so long. I want him to give me some truth.
“Grant?” I say.
Grant dies late that night after most of us have left, leaving only Henri and Grant’s sister at his side. I skip the funeral, citing business in New York. The truth is far more cowardly. Since I left Grant in the hospital room, I can scarcely stand to breathe, my every thought an artwork of my ignominy. It is a feeling beyond tears, beyond tremors, beyond all the poetry of old men and soldiers fresh from hell. Grant is gone, and so is another life I might have led. I live with that every moment, and will for the rest of my life.
Back in New York, I stay in my flat and listen to old records, go for long walks if I suspect my phone will ring, or take a copy of the Times to a coffee shop, sit down and gape at the issue without taking in a word. I do this today, a few days after the funeral, and when I check my mail I see a package postmarked from Toronto. It’s square and brown, about the size of a cutting board. Inside, I open the package and find a large frame containing a photograph featuring myself with Grant on my side, and a copy of the first edition of Brave Queer World on the other. Beneath the pictures, at the bottom of the frame, there is a tiny sterling placard, etched with spindly words that read: Long Live the Revolutionaries.
Staring at the placard with the odd sensation of my memory working new mechanics, I notice that the package also contains a brief note from Henri:
Grant wanted you to have this photo. I think he meant to give it to you a while back, but he must have forgotten to bring it on his last trip to New York. We found it buried underneath a pile of his papers at his desk. You remember how clumsy he was with those things. Again, sorry you missed the service. It was quite moving. Grant’s nephew read Whitman. Anyway, I’m off to Paris for a few weeks—I need to shake free my mind for a bit, take in the sight of Montmartre once more while I still can. All the best to you, Herb. My door is always open if you find yourself in Toronto again.
P.S., Sammy mentioned that you still hadn’t sent in your anniversary bio. You might want to do so quickly to avoid Sammy inserting his own version, which might be what he was counting on all along.
Without really thinking much of what I am doing, I walk directly into my study, sit down at my computer, and write the following:
In the early 1970s, I was, in the practical meaning of the term, a founder of Brave Queer World, the predecessor to this magazine and one of the first and finest sources of queer media in Canada. Those were grand times, times when love, sex and the struggle for justice comingled in a thousand ways, and the entire world seemed ready for the remaking of revolution. But I won’t wax poetic, for we all know the truth of the thing: gains have been made, but the spirit has been lost, our community having grown to admire expedience rather than struggle, the material rather than what’s true. But I cannot claim righteousness. It was I, a founder of such a pioneering magazine, who was the first to make the trade, exchanging happiness for pleasure. But there are those, both then and now, who remain true to the original ideals of the great era of change: equality; justice; freedom from fear, tyranny, and exploitation; but above all the freedom to question, to focus the lens of critique upon anything that could threaten our essential liberties, even if the lens focuses upon ourselves.
Grant Peterson—my truest friend—continued to voice these ideals until he died, observing that our very own Pride Committee has become the new censors. There’s an irony here, I’m sure, but also the old feeling of discomfort. The Other World would not print Grant’s objections, even though it was his tireless work that allowed Brave Queer World the lifetime and eminence it maintained. I encourage you to read his blog to view those objections, and ask that Mr. Sam Perfidon, managing editor of The Other World, include them in a future issue and on his website.
I remember once, sometime during the 1990s, when I’d expressed to Grant, quite cynically, that our old beliefs were dead and buried, that commercialism and materiality were all that remained. It was then that he reminded me of Sartre’s old definition of the difference between rebels and revolutionaries: rebels preached the good word, but they couldn’t stomach actual change, for then there would be nothing to complain about. Revolutionaries, on the other hand, would endure and continue, struggle and promote the vision for a truly New World as not just a matter of nominalism, but because they meant it.
I think it high time we ask ourselves in which group we should be counted, lest the revolution slumber too long in the graves of people like Grant. My time is at an end; it is too late for this old queen to take up the cause again. I look now, with optimistic eyes, to the young, in the hopes that they might continue where Grant left off, and succeed where I have failed.
I do a quick edit, and without changing much, I send those lines off to the junior editor Sam had indicated to me previously. I walk out into my living room, observing some of the artwork that I acquired in the eighties but never studied nor contemplated. I tear it all down, every effete piece of nothing I bought on a whim and pile it on the floor. I pick up the frame Grant has sent me and feel light, energized in a way I haven’t in a long time, and hang it in the center of the wall. I leave the flat, walking down Park Avenue, thinking vaguely of stopping into some bar and having a glass of Cabernet, tossing wistful glances towards the door in expectation of some wonderful stranger I might meet. That thought, which would have seemed silly and probably sad just a few hours prior, I now find promising.
Walking through town, with the sun just setting behind the Hudson, I feel my old love of New York, the thrill of adventure, the endless dance of possibility, of the movement of never-ceasing life. I stop at the corner of Park and 32nd and, feeling the wind at my back, start moving west. Held up at a cross, I spy across the street, in front of a small old church, a young man, mid-thirties and handsome, eyeing me with what appears to be some intensity. I find myself startled. Could he be giving me one of those looks? Could I really still have something?
The look holds, and, feeling a boldness quite forgotten, I cross the street and approach him.
“Good Evening,” I say. “Beautiful evening, in fact.”
“Yes,” he says, looking down, sheepishly, nervous. I see now that he can’t be much older than thirty or thirty-one. His complexion, which from a distance I thought merely tan, reveals Latin descent, possibly Puerto Rican or Cuban. He has an accent that tickles and chills, one filled with the flavor of Spanish wine.
“I’m Herb,” I say, and extend my hand.
“Javier,” he says, clasping mine. “Are you here for the meeting?”
“I could be,” I say, not wanting to appear foolish. “What meeting?”
He regards me oddly for a moment, as though suspicious.
“It’s a support meeting,” he says, “for people that are trying to come out.”
“Oh,” I say, somewhat surprised, looking back at the church with new understanding. “We used to have those all the time in my day. I wouldn’t think that many would be around now, especially in New York of all places. I thought that’s why people come to New York—to come out.”
Javier appears almost scandalized: his eyebrows arch almost all the way up to his dark, pomaded hair and he appears to stifle his contempt.
“Of course there are still meetings like this. You wouldn’t believe how many people show up confused and scared, looking for answers or just someone to talk to. Our members are old and young, and we have all peoples: gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people, and sometimes straight people come in just to listen.”
“I see,” I say, genuinely amazed. “I had no idea. I’ve been out a long time. I guess I sort of forgot what the first step is like.”
He continues to give me a hard look of appraisal.
“Why don’t you come in?” he says. “You can meet some new people, see what’s going on these days.”
“No one will mind?”
“Of course not,” Javier says. “And first timers have the option to share or not share, to tell us about themselves or not.”
As he says this, Javier places his hand upon my elbow and begins to lead me down the stairs to the church activity rooms. I’ve missed people, and I can’t remember the last time a stranger has taken my arm in friendship.
“Why don’t you come in and tell your story,” Javier says.
I tell him that I’d like that very much.
Thank you to Justin Hanson for sharing the complete text of his story “Twilight of the Revolution” for free on the web. The complete book book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories. Click here to find the book on Amazon. E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.
Justin Hanson was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. He attended The Honors College of The Ohio State University and graduated with a degree in English in 2011. At Ohio State, Justin studied with authors Manuel Martinez and Lee K. Abbott. Currently, Justin is completing a Master’s degree in English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Following this, Justin plans on working and continuing writing stories and eventually attempting a novel.